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‘Worst is beginning’: Reading Ulysses

Wednesday 16 June was Bloomsday, when fans of James Joyce’s seminal 1922 novel Ulysses celebrate the author’s work. In Ulysses, the action takes place within a single day – 16 June 1904 – in Dublin. As my own nod to Bloomsday, I’m bringing you a short excerpt from Jeri Johnson‘s Introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Ulysses, in which she talks about the novel’s formidable reputation and the intimidation readers coming to the novel for the first time might feel.

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‘Where do you begin in this?’ Stephen Dedalus asks his Dalkey schoolboys, ‘this’ being the book before them. The question returns with each new reader approaching Ulysses for the first time. The commonplace response of the contemporary Joyce critic is itself Joycean: of course, there is no possibility of beginning Ulysses, much less of finishing (with) it. Joyce’s book has so colonized twentieth-century Anglophone culture that we can never now enter it for the first time. Instead, we most resemble members of that parade of guests Bloom imagines both preceding and succeeding him into Molly’s bed: ‘he is always the last term of a preceding series even if the first term of a succeeding one, each imagining himself to be first, last, only and alone whereas he is neither first not last not only nor alone in a series originating in and repeated to infinity.’

There is more seriousness in this contention than first meets the eye. While every new reader faced with this book addresses it new, this newness is modified by the generations of readers who have come before and whose disseminations of it have seeped into virtually every aspect of high and popular culture. Approach must now be made through an air thick with rumours about the book and from a position inside a culture saturated with the effects of its influence. In 1941 Harry Levin declared Ulysses ‘a novel to end all novels’. In saying so, he credited it with being the culmination of one tradition (say, the nineteenth-century realist novel) while setting out the questions to be debated in the next (next two, perhaps, Modernism and postmodernism). If, after Joyce, everything suggested itself only as repetition many found the repetition fruitful, not least Joyce’s immediate contemporaries Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf. Later (to name but a few of Joyce’s more obvious beneficiaries), Samuel Beckett and Dylan Thomas, later still Anthony Burgess, B.S. Johnson, Martin (if not Kingsley) Amis, A.S. Byatt, and Salman Rushdie all bear the mark of his influence, as, in the wider sphere, do Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Umberto Eco, and a whole generation of American novelists. And this is stay with the realm of ‘high’ culture. The impact is no less felt on television, film, popular music, and Bloom’s own profession, advertising, in their use of montage, open-ended narrative, pastiche, parody, multiple viewpoint, neologism.

While this may be incontestable, it is as likely to leave the novice reader as much bemused and intimidated as enlightened and encouraged. Often rumours create more static than clear signal. A small example. Ulysses, the title, utterly flummoxed many early readers. To them it conjured up classical associations: the Roman name of the Greek hero Odysseus. Expecting perhaps a modern novelization of Homer’s epic, they opened the book only to discover themselves thrown into the middle of a narrative (in media res – in the midst of things – the way all good epics begin) featuring ‘Stately plump Buck Mulligan’ (hardly a Greek or Roman name), then a ‘displeased and sleepy’ Stephen Dedalus (here, at least, was a Greek name), then Haines, a ‘ponderous Saxon’. Where was Ulysses? Most modern readers don’t face this dilemma because by now the title has virtually lost its ability to refer to the Roman name of a Greek hero. Now it simply means ‘That Book by James Joyce’. If today we are to recognize both the significance and the force of title, we may need to make it strange again, to untie the knot binding it to its creator. Jennifer Levine suggests imagining that this book is called Hamlet to ‘regain a sense of its as a text brought into deliberate collision with a powerful predecessor’. That’s the kind of ‘making strange’ required.

There is a further related problem. If Joyce has spawned generations of writers, he has no less stimulated whole libraries of criticism. What may have appeared at the time as enormous egoism – Joyce’s claim, ‘I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality’ – begins to seem modest seventy years on. More to the point, virtually every Joyce critic these days expects one to know already things about the book which aren’t to be found within it: the episode titles, for example, or the history of Joyce’s personal campaign to create a critical context for the book. What is a new reader to do?

Recent Comments

  1. Stan

    Thank you, I enjoyed returning to this. Ulysses can be a daunting prospect for a new reader. Its immense influence and aura of impenetrability and academic obscurity draw attention away from how much fun it is to just read (especially aloud, in an Irish accent!). Here and there it can be difficult or tiring, but never without cause; decades later it remains as fresh, funny, musical and magnificent as it must have seemed upon publication.

    To anyone keen to try it for the first time, I’ll happily recommend OUP’s edition of the 1922 text, and I’ll mention Harry Blamires’s The Bloomsday Book as a very helpful guide to the main structures and themes in the book. It wasn’t until after I finished Joyce’s great work that I set about reading various analyses and criticisms, but that approach mightn’t suit everyone.

  2. […] the meantime, I encourage you to read this short excerpt from Jeri Johnson’s introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Ulysses, in which […]

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